It’s odd, but I can often tell when a film is directed by a woman, even before having read who the director is. Typically it’s due to how the female relationships – family or friendship – are handled, and in the film Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore, the female friendships are right front and center in the movie’s heart.
It’s about a girl, Bliss (Ellen Page), who is unhappy in her current setting due to her mother’s push for her to be a debutant. She isn’t entirely comfortable in her own skin, and it isn’t until she meets a Roller Derby team and decides to work hard and try out that she realizes that’s where she’d belong. Her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) is completely supportive, while her mother needs time but ultimately gets the chance to grow as well. Bliss is surrounded by amazing women on her team – one in particular is played by Kristen Wiig, and she’s a sweet character who despite her rough and tumble sport is very good-natured toward anyone she loves.
Bliss is a wonderful character – she’s allowed to have her own personal struggles and growth and the audience is never meant to find her wishes and wants frivolous. Sure the movie starts out with the typical “rebel girl” stunt where she dyes her hair an unnatural color before doing something dressy for her mother, but that moment doesn’t define her character. She also isn’t instantly good at the sport and we see her having to train hard to achieve her place on the team. It’s also rare to see such badass female characters that aren’t either one of two tropes: the strong female character who is only physically strong and can fight in mini-dresses and stilettos so that her supposed “sex appeal” isn’t lost, or a strong female character who’s stripped of all femininity. Bliss is strong-willed, she’s tough and can take a girl out while racing on the derby track, but she’s also insecure when it comes to dating, when it comes to showing her mom who she really is, and she’s uncertain about the life she wants. She’s a full-fledged female character and I would love to see more characters like her. Page’s performance helps as she brings her expected wit as well as vulnerability to the role.
Her boyfriend is the only real pitfall of the film, since it seems like an odd digression for the film to take considering the prime focus is on Bliss’s growth. When she’s cheated on, there’s a moment where you think she’ll forgive him but thankfully the movie corrects course and she leaves him.
It’s particularly disappointing due to the relationship between Bliss and Pash and the absurd amount of chemistry between Page and Shawkat. I would like to think that in another film and in a time where lesbian relationships aren’t as absent from pop culture as they are (Orange is the New Black besides, of course) that maybe they would have been the primary romantic pairing. While I appreciate the friendship between the two characters and the authentic nature of how close they are, it seemed like a missed opportunity in a film where it would have made sense.
Regardless, this film does so much so well that a few bumps in the road are easy to ignore. The way the mother is handled is beautiful, and she’s never seen to be the villain. The end is a triumph for many of the characters and getting to see some awesome women kick major ass is always a huge amount of fun – particularly when there’s heart to go along with it.